By Dr. Gerald Mann
Willie Nelson and I were headed north on I-35 in my old Chevy. We had a date to play dominoes with some of his cronies near Waco. I served as his designated driver. My car gave him some privacy. He had just crossed the line into national notoriety. It was the heyday of CB radios. Almost everybody in Texas had one, thanks to the federally mandated 55mph speed limit. Texans had never driven that slowly, and they never would. The CB radio was our “smokey repellant”. I called up a Central Freightliner 18 wheeler going the other way. It had the familiar green logo which is well known in our parts.
“How ‘bout that sound bound green machine” This is the Souldoctor.” Willie chuckled at my handle. “Any smokey’s that-away?”
“Nope,” he replied. “She’s clean to Waco. What’s a Souldoctor? Come back.”
“I doctor souls who are sick… it’s my work.” After a brief silence, he figured it out.
“Oh,” he said, “You’re one-a-them. Well, I’m one of these… toodle-loo.” And he signed off.
Willie took the mike. “But he ain’t like one-a-them, he’s like one-a-us.”
“Who have I got here?”, said the trucker.
“The red headed stranger.” (Willies album by that name had just hit the top of the charts, and every trucker in America knew it by heart. They also knew is unmistakable voice.)
The trucker was incredulous.
“Is this who I think it is?”
“Yep,” Willie replied. This set off an animated dialogue that lasted for as long as our antennae would reach. It was the usual stuff – how Willie had breached the wall between hippies and cowboys, etc. At one point in the conversation, the trucker said, “no offense, but what are you doing hanging out with a man of the cloth?”
“I do it to keep him on his toes, he needs to know what he’s up against.”
“Does he have a church, and do you attend?”
“He’s got one, and I attend occasionally. But mostly I watch him on TV, or he brings it to me.”
“He must be a whole differ’nt animal,” the trucker said.
“Ain’t we all,” Willie signed off with that.
I am a whole different animal. But it’s not because I run with Willie, which I do, occasionally. Or because I hunt. Or because I built a large church in Austin, Texas. Or because I was on international television for a short while. Or because I get angry with God and admit it. All of these things are what I do, or have done, not who I am. I am different like you are. I have a story. It’s my claim to fame. Of all the people who have ever lived on this planet there have never been two exactly alike. What makes us unique, is that we have a unique story. The only thing that is truly ours is the story of how the truth has shown itself to us and through us. Each of us has an autobiography to tell. It is not about our achievements and credits. It’s about our beasts and angels – the beasts in our basement, and the angels in our attic.
The beasts in our basement are those dark forces of guilt, fear, long forgotten vows of childhood, and ghosts of our family past.
The angels in our attic are the bright forces – glimpses of our potential, gifts of delight. (An acronym for G.O.D., if you want to give children God, give them the gift of delight. Let them know that you take great delight in them, simply because they are. Not because of what they can do.) There are other angels in our attic as well, moments of courage to rise above the worst that fate can deal us. And brushes with transcendence, to name two.
I have never seen a Hollywood, special effects angel. Nor those depicted by Dante and Milton and other medieval artists. For me, angels are not winged godlings. They are people, places and events that call me to reach higher and love harder. I have spent my professional life as a story teller. I have never been an oratorical type speaker. I don’t have that gift. I tell stories. For example, if I want to talk about sin, I tell stories of my bouts with my sins. I learned early on that if you try to make people feel guilty by accusing them, all you do is make them defend themselves. You may be right about their sins, but accusation won’t do anything to set them free.
Here’s an example. I contracted to buy some land on Monday. We were due to close the transaction in 60 days. But there was a clause in the contract which permitted me to sell the property during the 60 day escrow period. I sold the property in 2 days for a $50,000.00 profit. There was only one catch. The buyer wanted the sales contract to show that he paid me $10,000.00. He would pay me the rest of the profit ($40,000.00) in hundred dollar bills. I took the deal, and put the 40 grand in a safety deposit box. Six months later at income tax time, my accountant finished calculating my income and deductions, and casually asked if I had any other income to report? My heart quickened, but I said, “No. That’s it.” Two hours later I called him and retracted the lie. Taxes were duly paid on the gain. Did I feel good about coming clean with Uncle Sam? Not really. I call myself stupid every time I think of sharing my profits with a profligate government. They just spent trillions to bail out big business, without even reading the bill! Then, why did I come clean? Because I knew the truth, and my wife knew the truth, and God knew the truth. And I couldn’t take that kind of heat.
Here’s the point. When I told this story it was so quiet in the church, you could have heard a mouse wettin’ on cotton. Every business person in the place had been there. No doubt every one of them had tin cans, safety deposit boxes and rat holes. My story told their story. It is the story of the struggle between the beasts in our basement and the angels in our attic.
Before I tell my stories, I want to clear up two things. First, I do not consider factual accuracy to be the primary importance in the telling of stories. I am more concerned about conveying truths than facts. If a little hair helps convey the truth, then add a little hair!
Secondly, I refuse to be intimidated by the current obsession with political correctness. I received notice that Texas A&M University recently held a competition to determine the most appropriate definition of a contemporary term. This year’s term was “political correctness”. The winning definition displays my opinion exactly. It reads as follows:
Political correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and is rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream Media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a t- -d (rhymes with bird) by the clean end.
Standardizing words will never change the way a speaker feels about someone who is different than the norm, and you can never keep from offending the easily offended. Daniel Boorstein, the great historian and laureate, was into his eighties when he was asked what he felt was the greatest threat to America? He answered without hesitation, “The hyphenated American.” Boorstein felt that we were on the verge literally, of becoming a fractured society. We are in danger of deleting from history the very elements which make people unique, all because of a cadre of insecure souls who cannot make peace with their anger.
In my stories I do not apologize for celebrating the accents, brogues and provincialisms, of the angels who have graced my attic and the beasts that have haunted my basement. I refuse to substitute uniformity for equality. Uniformity means denying my uniqueness for the sake of reinforcing people who do not know who they are. Equality means equal worth before God, and equal access to life. So, get ready to hear what was said, the way it was said. To hear otherwise would be to hear fabrications of my story… and yours.
The Woman Who Hated Lincoln
Frances Eugenia January Alden, was 16 when the civil war ended. She lived to be 98. We called her Lil’ Bitty grandma. Her great grandfather lived until he was 98, and fought with the colonies in the American Revolution. I knew someone when America got started! Wow! She told me about Valley Forge, and the British General, Cornwallis and other exotic names like Bunker Hill, Yorktown, and Ticonderoga. She and her two sisters, were eye-witnesses to the battle of Holly Springs, Mississippi, near the end of the Civil War. All of the men in the family died in the battle – her father and two brothers.
The Yankees knew that in order to win the war they would have to cut off the key southern supply route – the Mississippi River. They needed to go a considerably long distance up river, to protect themselves from attacks at their rear, either by the French ships, or rebel – built war craft or withering fire from the banks of the Mississippi. The day after the victory, the Yankees set up in the family home. Lil’ Bitty’s young sister had died a few days before of diphtheria, and the Yankees seeing the freshly turned soil suspected that the family had buried their valuables, and made up the story about the child’s death. You guessed it. The Yankee’s exhumed the little girl’s decaying corpse to prove themselves wrong. Add on the brutal times of reconstruction and you can see how Lil’ Bitty hated Lincoln. She saw him as a pious hypocrite and opportunist, who had failed at everything in his life, except spurring the nation to war. I was somewhat confused about Lincoln. At school he was extolled, while at home he was excoriated.
Today as we struggle to disentangle our nation from the evils of its racist past, we need to remember how fresh are the scars on our psyche. My immediate forebears couldn’t separate the civil rights debate from their firsthand encounter with pain, blood, and dispossession. In a real sense Lil’ Bitty was a slave herself, caught in the grasp of revenge and anger, and filled with resentment toward anyone who dared preach to her when she had lost so much. She never ceased to tell whomever would listen that her family never owned any slaves and were against slavery. Her father was a riverboat captain. Her two brothers were helpers on the boat. When their country called, they heeded. And their blood ran the same as if they had been slave owners.
“Besides,” Lil’ Bitty never ceased to remind me, “the Civil War was not about slavery anyway. Slavery was the excuse. It was really a clash between two cultures, agrarian and urban.” She also pointed out, tirelessly, that Lincoln favored resettlement of all black Americans to Africa. Thomas Jefferson, before him advocated that all slaves be repatriated, and was adamant that blacks never be allowed to mix procreatively with whites. He didn’t say why, and the evidence is strong that he fathered a child with one of his own slaves. Back to Lil’ Bitty. She died when I was 10. She left me a book and a note. The book was Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln.
The note reads as follows:
My Dear Jerry: You may be surprised that I leave you the biography of a person who caused me such pain. It is part of my atonement. He lost what I lost, (both lost their sons), in that we are the same. I do not want you to be enslaved by the bitterness that ruled my years. Your Lil’ Bitty great grandma, Frances Eugenia January Alden.
As I write this, Barack Obama, a half white/half black Christian with a Muslim name is riding a wave of success in his ascendance to the presidency of the USA. He has already left Hilary Clinton and John McCain in the dust. Perhaps white America can finally put to bed the final response to Jim Crow – America. His victory has made white – America take another step toward a color – blind society. Years ago, when Barbara Jordan, the Austinite who served in the U. S. House of Representatives, asked me to lunch, I was honored and flattered. She was confined to a wheelchair by then. It was considered a distinction to be invited to lunch with Ms. Jordan.
We chatted for about forty five minutes while dining. Then she said, “I don’t have any time left for idle talk. I have been watching you on TV for many years, and I sense that you want to promote racial harmony. There is only one thing you need to learn… the difference between liberty and equality.” I replied, “Tell me the difference.” “Find out for yourself,” she said. “Our meeting is at an end.”
What is the difference between liberty and equality? You mean you don’t know? You should find out for yourself.
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An Angel in the Mist
Andrew Jackson Mann, fought for the confederacy at Antietam and Knoxvillle. The family lore says he was a cousin to “Old Hickory” himself, and named after him. (The proof is sketchy at best.) If so, he did not inherit his namesake’s battle skills, for he was captured by the Union Army at both engagements. He was “paroled” (former confederate soldiers were technically criminals, and laying down their arms was the condition for their release.) Jackson Mann and his family migrated from Tennessee to Mississippi to farm in the delta. At the age of 32 he brought in a bumper crop and was on his way home from the sale when he was set upon by thieves, robbed and severely beaten. “He dragged himself home, laid down and died,” according to his wife, Rosa Ward Mann, who had two small children, and was pregnant with her third.
Rosa was penniless and alone. She was the youngest of five children and the only girl. All of the males in her family were killed in the civil war, and her mom died giving birth to her. Rosa was, “ Of an intrepid nature,” to quote a cousin. “She took care of business and asked no quarter from anyone.” She sold the farm to carpetbaggers, loaded up a wagon, and headed for Texas. She crossed the Sabine River into Texas on a cold and dreary December afternoon in 1871. When the wagon lurched out of the river on the Texas side, an axle broke. A bone-chilling fog enshrouded the landscape. As usual, Rosa and her brood were alone.
Out of the mist, there loomed a dark figure. When Rosa saw the rifle in his hand, her thoughts immediately turned to Jackson’s last day. There was nowhere to run and no place to hide. She huddled close to her babies as the stranger approached. His eyes were a “piercing blue,” Rosa would recount. “They danced as he smiled. And I knew at once that he meant us only good.” He extended his hand, “Carey Freeman,” as he introduced himself. “I live upriver.” With that, Rosa and her children found a savior and friend, who sheltered them for several days while the wagon was being repaired. Carey’s family was as accommodating he was. Following a short stay with the Freemans, Rosa continued her trek to Mart, Texas, where she lived out her life as a single mom, boardinghouse proprietress, and milliner. She fashioned hats and gowns for society’s finest from Dallas to Houston.
She also broke-up fights at the boarding house, and even shot a rowdy drunk who tried to force himself on her. The local sheriff removed the wounded drunk and didn’t bother to ask questions. Rosa’s word was sufficient. Rosa – according to family lore – was the last white person to face down Comanche Indians in Coryell County, Texas. The story goes that Rosa, and her three babies lived on a farm outside of Mart in the late 1870’s. The Comanches were dwindling in number and fighting spirit. Most of the tribe had already accepted resettlement on reservations in other states. Two renegades showed up with the sunrise on horseback. Rosa was awakened by the dogs barking. She saw the Indians on the hill overlooking the cabin. She rushed to arm herself and to stick the double-barreled shotgun out of the window. The Comanches saw the gun but not its wielder. They fled. I do not know the verity of this story. Everybody who knew her had a “Rosa” story.
I do know that she was saved by an “angel in the mist” named Carey Freeman. And I do know that she named the baby she carried in her womb, Carey Freeman Mann. He was my grandfather. And his son was my father, C.F. Mann Jr. He, like his father, had piercing blue eyes that danced when he smiled. I have the same eyes as my father. And so does my son.
The Man Who Heard a Distant Voice
An air of “forbiddenness” descended on our house whenever my grandfather, Carey Mann’s name was mentioned. My grandmother and he were “separated,” not divorced. She was a Methodist converted from Catholicism, but not fully. She retained some of her Jesuit upbringing, one doctrine she never shook, was the one about “until death do us part.” We children called Carey, “Papa-mann,” both names were said together as a hyphenation.
I knew him, “after the demons left him,” they often said. He was into his seventies and lame, when I was in first grade. He was a precursor to a crossing guard. He would help me and my class mates across the street before and after school. He always had candy or fruit to give to his kids, and he would give me the ripest and sweetest apple. He called me “little cotton,” because I looked like my dad, blue eyes and cotton hair. If one of my parents picked me up after school, Papa-mann would wave to me from a distance; he never spoke or motioned toward my elders.
He had lived a storied life. On occasion, I would go home with him after school. He lived about a block away. We’d share a banana, and he would tell me about the cattle drives. He had made two, from Texas to Kansas in the 1880’s when he was only fourteen and fifteen. His stories were mostly about hardships. Not much Hollywood stuff. The worst story was about the time he and another lad went looking for strays. Both of their horses died and so did they, almost, in the three days it took them to catch up to the outfit on foot. The only thing that saved them was their decision to drink urine from the bladders of the horses.
The cause of his lameness was a matter of some dispute. One story had him being shot in a bar room brawl in Louisiana, where he was a deputy sheriff. A more romantic version spoke of a gunfight in Oklahoma with renegade Indians. However, he told me more than once that the youngsters were not allowed to carry weapons for fear that they would stampede the herd. My grandmother and he received a pension from his service in the Spanish – American war. He was with Teddy Roosevelt and company at San Juan Hill, and my aunt Lilly claimed that, “He took one in the leg that was meant for old Bully himself.” However, his only word to me about the war was that he was a wrangler – he took care of the horses – “Fed ‘em and shoveled their leavin’s.”
My own conviction is that Pappa-mann’s brother gave the true account. Carey got into an argument with a man over some construction work. It commenced as a misunderstanding, and was fueled by a considerable amount of alcohol into a “call-out”. They agreed to arm themselves and to meet on the docks of the Atchafalaya river on the Berwick side. Carey arrived early, “Merely to determine whether his adversary came alone,” as he put it.
His opponent arrived on time, armed with a 12 gauge shotgun. Pappa-mann was hiding behind some cotton bales. He pulled the .44 revolver from his pants, and in the excitement forgot that it didn’t have a trigger guard. The gun went off in his britches; the bullet entered his thigh and lodged in his knee. His adversary fled at the noise of the shot. I tend to believe that Uncle Robert’s story was the accurate one, because I was admonished never to ask Pappa-mann the source of his affliction. He was said to become a crazy man, if asked about his lameness.
I ignored the warning once, and asked. His smiling blue eyes turned to ice. “Self-inflicted stupidity,” he mumbled. Then he took me home. While the source of his crippled body was the subject of debate, there was little speculation about the source of his crippled soul. It was alcohol. Beyond the romantic tale of his wooing and winning my grandmother, Pearl Alden Mann, his was a tragic epic. She went down to the troop train with the Belle of Berwick, to cheer the boys off to Cuba and the Spaniards. It was common for the soldier boys to write their names on pieces of paper, wad them up. And throw them to the girls. Many a romance began this way.
While the Belle was being thrown more names than she could field, Pearl caught only two. But the one from the tall blue-eyed Texan was enough. She threw him the box of cookies she had made. Letters were exchanged in the months that followed. His stop in Berwick on his way home from the war, was ill-timed. Pearl’s sister had died. The family was in no condition to receive guests. He continued to write, and he returned to Louisiana to court and to marry Pearl. He served as a deputy sheriff in the local parish. His main responsibility was to keep people of color off the streets on Election Day. But Carey resigned his lawman’s job after one year, “Because it wasn’t right what the system was doing to the coloreds.” In fact, Carey had a disdain for Louisiana law enforcement as a whole. He had quaint sayings like, “Sweatin’ like a ‘n’ on election day in looziana.” And, “that road is as crooked as a looziana politician.”
Carey had an inborn talent for residential “tract” development. He developed the first 100-tract lots in Houston. He caught the first wave of government aid in lending to citizens who had served in the military, and in the FHA programs. He was a millionaire over-night. But his penchant for physical and verbal abuse, rose in proportion to his monetary fortune. As soon as his fortune began to grow, every Friday after “quittin’ time,” he and his cousin, Uncle, I’bell, (pronounced eye-bell) would have a drinking bout with his “employees.” They would end the day by coming home in a cloud of dust and to a screeching halt. Pappa-mann would say, “Catch me one, I’bell,” whereupon the mobile uncle would, “flush the rabbits,” their term for seeing which children were in the house.
I’bell would rush one of the side or back doors. The kids would run out of the front door, where Pappa-mann would catch the kid whom he wanted to beat that day. There were six children in all, Jesse the baby. Horace, aged two, C.F. Jr., age 8, Frank, age 13, Lilly, age 14, and Clarence, age 15. The teenagers were wise enough to avoid the abusive ritual. The two youngest ones were too young to play Carey’s game. That left C.F. Jr. At the age of 8, he was the prime target.
C.F. Jr., himself never laid a hand on me, although he did repeat his father’s addiction to alcohol. It was during one of his stupors that he told me of the sheer horror of his Fridays.
To compound the misery of anticipation of the beating he was sure to receive, there was another element that added terror to the Friday abuse ritual. Pappa-mann would sometimes “change his mind.” Instead of beating, C.F., he would extend hugs and positive praise. “It was the unpredictability that was the worst part of my Fridays” C.F. said. I asked him if Carey ever gave a reason for beating him. “It was to make me tough,” he said.
“Did it work?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “I guess it did. I shot the ‘s.o.b.’ when I was 12. Didn’t kill him, but I surely did mess up his afternoon.” Pappa-mann’s death was the first I witnessed. I was 12. He had lain at death’s door for days, felled by a stroke, he had been in a coma. Dad and I were sitting at his bedside, in the afternoon. Suddenly he opened his eyes, and with amazing lucidity, he pointed to his wallet. He opened it and fetched a folded piece of yellowed paper. “Read it to me,” he said to my father. It was a poem. It read:
I’m ridin west on a trail alone
On a trail that’s dim and a trail unknown.
That’s leadin’ on to the setting sun
Where the camp is made and the trail is done
And the herd’s at rest from the reekin’ mill
All bedded down and the night is still
Oh I’m ridin’ west for a long, long rest
Where the round-up waits and the grass is best
And the chuck is good and the herdin’ light
So I’m ridin west in the quiet night
Oh I’m ridin on for the sun is gone
And the trail is damp like the dew at dawn
But the star mirage leads by its light
So I’m driftin’ on through quiet night
As the dogie treads through the siftin’ loam
To find its way to herd and home
I’m on my way, for the round- up waits
The driftin’ brands at the corral gates.
And the trail is closed and I sha’nt come back
For I’m ridin’ west on a wind-swept track.
Oh I’m ridin’ slow for I’d like to know
That the trail leads straight where the riders go
But the star mirage with its beaming light
Keeps calling me, so I must be right
And I’ll follow on, though the road be strange
To the home corral on the unknown range
As Dad finished the poem, Pappa-mann closed his eyes for the last time. Dad showed no emotion. He stared out of the window for a long moment. Then he said, “Well I’ll be damned.” Years later, I would understand what Dad meant by those four words, although I had no clue when he said them.
He was surprised! Surprised to hear that one who had inflicted such pain and mayhem, could still hear the distant voice of God. He had made peace with the demons of his past. He had been sober for over 30 years. He helped children across the street. He meant only good towards me.
Paschal said that we humans are capable of the sewer and the throne room at the same time. Until Dad read that poem, he did not know that his father had throne room capacities. We never get so far away that we cannot hear the distant voice.
The Damnedest Man I Never Knew
My father, Carey Freeman Mann Jr., requested that I write a book about him. He had several chapters out-lined, the working title was The Damnedest Man I Ever Knew.
When the years passed and I had written several books, he told friends that I had actually written the book, and that it would soon be published. I have had numerous requests for: “that book you wrote about your dad.”
C.F. was not the damnedest man I ever knew, if that phrase is meant to describe manliness, dependability, or the power to bless his children. He was a mass of contradictions: unpredictable in temperament, out to prove an identity he couldn’t name, often gentler to strangers than to his own children, a womanizer and an alcoholic. And I loved him. We finished our business before he died, and he gave me his blessing, broken and flawed though it was. He had two days to live. The Chesterfields he started smoking when he was 13, finally took their toll in the form of a massive oat-cell carcinoma in both lungs.
“I have come to settle our business,” I began. He was confused. “What do you mean?” he replied. “I mean that I have come here to ask your forgiveness for all I did to you, real and imagined, and to tell you that I forgive you as well. I love you pop.”
I kissed him on the forehead. He just looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “Okay” and added, “Will you do my funeral?” I nodded. “I know you are wondering about my soul. Don’t worry. First you ain’t in charge of who gets in and who don’t. And second, if I see the Devil, I’m going to kick his –s. God and I got our own deal going.”
On the other hand, C.F. was the damnedest man I ever knew when it came to “never-a-dull-momentness.” I loved his total disregard and disrespect for money. He made and lost four fortunes in his lifetime. He did whatever he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, to hell with the repercussions. “Money is like a beautiful lady of the evening,” he used to say, “Good to use, but don’t get attached to it.” As I said earlier, C.F. shot his father right after he turned 12. It was on a Friday, and it was premeditated. C.F. stashed the family double-barreled 12 gauge shotgun just inside the front door of the across-the-street neighbor’s house. He also placed a lawn chair in the front yard, sat down and waited for Pappa-mann and Uncle I’bell to arrive drunk.
They arrived on schedule. As soon as their car stopped, Pappa-mann yelled, “Catch him, I’bell!” Instantly, C.F. dashed around the car, wriggled through the grasp of both men, and raced up the steps of the neighboring house. Pappa-mann hobbled after the lad with a demonic grin on his face, which turned to astonishment when C.F. came out of the door with two barrels pointing at him. Pappa-mann turned to run and fell, just as C. F. fired. The fall was fortuitous. The shot missed. Young C.F. had been aiming “tween the shoulder blades.” Pappa-mann’s fall had caused him to shoot high.
Senior jumped to his feet just in time to catch the second barrel squarely in the backside. Again had junior hit where he was aiming the shot would have been fatal. As it was, he set into motion a chain of events that would alter the family’s life forever. C.F. threw down the gun and fled. He had planned his escape to the letter. He caught the jitney to Humble, north of Houston, Texas. From there he hitchhiked to Conroe, and eventually made his way to the Trinity river bottoms where an uncle from Morgan City, La., had previously taken him fishing.
He was looking for Pap Ray, an old man, who had guided them on the one trip. He had a “yes” face, Dad said. “Don’t worry ‘bout nothin’, Pap said, after hearing the story “Unless your dad gets an infection and dies, no lawman in his right mind will ever know you were here, and could care less.” The next 6 years would be the formative years for all that was good and decent about C. F. He ventured out of Pap’s presence a couple of times just to let his mom know he was okay, but he fell in love with everything that had to do with hunting and fishing.
Pap was of a peculiar fraternity known as, “River Rats.” They owned where they squatted, and they ate what they shot. Most were not legally married or fathered. They were what Churchill called “Border People.” They lived on the border between law and order, between right and wrong, always with that far-off look in their eyes. They were ready to move on at the slightest hint of permanence. But Pap Ray was different. He was a cross between a patriarch, Shaman, and medicine man. Rumor had it that he had prospered in the timber business up near the Arkansas border. Somebody’s wife had been caught in bed with her lover. Both were shot and the house was burned. The prospering business man vanished.
Pap could quote Shakespeare, and Blake. He was well acquainted with Homerian myths, as well. His hounds had unusual names like Charlemagne, Augustine, and Aristotle. Expectant mothers traveled from afar to have Pap predict the sex of their babies. He would place his hand on the “small of their backs” and pronounce “boy” or “girl,” with amazing accuracy. Many of his “clients” would travel for miles to have Pap settle their disputes. Pap spoke very little. “Words are what you use when you’ve run out of thoughts” he used to say. “The more a man talks, the more he reveals his ignorance.”
“Wasting words is the favorite pastime of the frightened and the mentally limited”, was the mantra he always added.
Pap took to young C.F. as if he were his own. Later we would learn why. Pap lost the son of his old age, when the boy was 15. He had the same corn-silk hair as C. F. and the same blue eyes. Pap dubbed my father, “Cotton”, the nickname of his lost son. I remember Pap Ray. He was in his middle seventies, when I was very young. We would go to his old shack on double-lake, just west of the Trinity River. There was no road beyond the river. We would leave the highway approximately 10 miles east of the Trinity, and travel a dirt track until we reached the high bluff, and a dead-end. Then we would call out across the river into the wilderness. Pap would always answer, and within ten minutes he would be in his skiff, coming to fetch us across the river.
Pap was an amazing man. He could read without glasses and shoot a squirrel in the eye from the tallest tree in the bottoms, with a single-shot .22 rifle. His old shack was spotless on the inside. And he had books piled high in his bedroom. He would read me a summary from Homer, say from the story of Narcissus, the lad who went to drink from a pool, and ended up staring at himself and falling love with his own image. Then Pap would say, “That story is about human nature. What does it say to you, Little Cotton?” At first, I said, “I dunno.” “That’s an excellent answer” he said. “You haven’t spent enough time at the reflecting pool yet to know what narcissism is. Wait until you are 13. Then you will know.”
Pap and Cotton, “P & C” had an unexpected windfall in the form of the Temple Lumber Company. The company began to harvest the pine forests in East Texas in the early 1920’s. “Pap and Cotton Inc.,” as they called themselves, provided honey, meat and fish, to the logging camps. They worked 7 days a week, at their craft. Occasionally, they would hire out to finish railroad ties, “The most difficult work a free man could do,” according to C.F. Whenever things got tough in years to come, Dad would say, “Cheer up boys, you could be finishin’ railroad ties.”
A railroad tie entered this world as the heart of a hardwood log, precise only in length. Then it was de-barked and fashioned into cubical beam with a hoe-shaped implement. If the finished product were flawed either by the worker, or the natural shape of the tree, the tie was considered a cull. This meant that the cutter got only a third of the 60 cents he received for a passable tie. And the clincher was that there was no way to tell whether the tie was a twenty-center or a sixty-center, until it was almost finished. No wonder tie-cutters were in demand. And no wonder Pap and Cotton did such work only on rare occasions. And no wonder a tie boss named Billy Cain (not his real name) was shot, over a dispute with a tie cutter.
“P & C” decided to cut ties during the month of August. The animals were nurturing their young, and the river was off for fishing. On the first Saturday they rode five miles to the logging camp to draw their wages. On the way home Pap spoke only six words, “he shorted us on our pay.” They cut ties all of the following week, and went to the camp to draw their pay. On the way home, all Pap said was, “he did it again.”
When cotton awakened at dawn the next morning, the house was empty. Pap’s horse was missing. He returned at noon, fried up some eggs and ate in silence. Billy Cain had been a law officer in a neighboring county for a short while. He lost his second bid for re-election in a racist community, because he brought in too many people of color “shot while resisting arrest.” Not to worry. Billy became the ideal tie-cutter’s manager for the company. He wore two pearl-handled pistols and brooked no rivals or critics. He was the defacto keeper of law and order in the camp with an emphasis on “order.” The law was secondary.
Billy was a small man, standing only 5’ 5”. He had weasel-like eyes set close together. His face was a misshapen mess. His nose protruded over a mouth full of buck-teeth, yellowed by snuff which drooled out of both sides of his mouth. He had a hair-trigger temper matched only by those on his pistols. On that second Sunday morning in August, Billy sat on a stump with his ledger studying the wages he had paid out and no doubt, the workers he had swindled.
“Good morning.” Pap’s calm voice gave Billy a start. But he got over it. Without even looking up, Cain said, “What do you want old man? I am busy.”
“I come to collect the pay you shorted us.” Pap said quietly.
Billy erupted. “Git off down that road,” he screeched. “And don’t ever let me see you walkin’ it again.” Pap just tipped his hat and replied, “Son, I been walkin’ up and down that road for 40 years,” he turned around and walked to his horse which was tethered back in the brush.
The next discordant sound Billy Cain heard was also the last he would ever hear. It was the sound of the twin hammers on Pap’s Long Tom 12 gauge, being locked into place.
In the late afternoon, Cotton was napping on the porch. A voice rang out from the across the river. Cotton stirred immediately. Pap came out of the front door and stood on the stoop. “Who is that?” C.F. said anxiously. “My guess is the sheriff from Liberty,” Pap replied. He paused, then said matter of factly, “I killed Billy Cain this morning.” The sheriff was respectful of Pap. “Billy Cain needed killin’. It was best that the likes of a respected person like yourself did the rest of us the favor.” Pap went with him to town, was released on his own recognizance, submitted himself for a trial, which turned out to be a testimonial to Pap’s integrity and Billy Cain’s lack thereof.
C.F., Cotton, my dad received G.o.d. from Pap Ray. You are tired of hearing that it stands for “gift of delight”, but it does. Every child needs to be given the message from an adult that says, “You matter to me, I take great delight in you because you are, not because you are bright, or because you can jump high or run fast. But because you were given to me as God’s gift.” Pap did not verbalize his G.o.d. to Cotton. He conveyed the gift of delight by simply taking in a troubled kid and providing home and hearth for him.
C.F. stayed on with Pap Ray until he was eighteen years old. There was one more crisis with Carey Sr. He came to Pap’s place in the afternoon on a dreary November day. C.F. was having one of his repeated bouts with malaria, and was sleeping under a mosquito net on the front porch.
Pap answered Carey’s call by saying curtly, “What do you want?”
“I’ve come to fetch my boy,” said Pappa-mann, “and take him home.” Pap turned to C.F. “What do you want, Cotton? Do you want to go home with your paw?”
The response was instantaneous. “This is my home, and you are my paw.”
“Sounds like you had better leave,” Pap said calmly. It was not said as an opinion. It was more of a command. For the only time in his life, Carey actually backed down. Later, C.F. would learn that his dad was actually trying to avoid the embarrassment of having it known that he had been violently abusing his children, and had turned on his wife after C.F. had fled. Jesse, the baby, had died at the age of three, and Pearl, had miscarried while carrying her sixth, after a beating from Carey. This was all Pearl could take. She and Carey were separated for the rest of their lives.
My dad thought that his father did not really want him to return to Houston. Every morning his aching backside reminded him that he had reason to fear C.F. Anyway, Pappa-mann backed off, and lived to repent and to recant his abuse. But his abuse of my father left scars on Junior’s life. In the family lore, here are a few “cee-effers” that have lingered.
1. Cadillac 75
In 1946 Americans were ‘chompin at the bit’ to put the great war to rest, and start making stuff. Autos were the best way to make a statement. There is nothing like the smell of a new car. C.F.’s oldest brother Clarence, we called him “Uncle Mansy” was the best businessman in the family. He entered WW 2 as an enlisted man, and came out as a full-bird Colonel. He was the commandant of an air base in West Texas. When the war ended, he stayed on long enough to deal in “army” surplus, and made a fortune quickly. When he mustered out he bought two Cadillac dealerships in Texas.
By 1949, C.F. had his master plumber’s license, which was the fare he had to pay to become a developer. Both he and Mansy were riding high in post-war America. In 1947 General Motors came out with a personal limo which was called a “Cadillac 75.” The passenger compartment featured two seats facing each other, seating three abreast, each. Dad had two chrome-plated bugles mounted on the front fenders with the horns of a Texas longhorn covering the front grill. The car cost a neat $10,000, all options included. It was one of a pair in all of Houston, according to Uncle Mansy. When it came to price Mansy said, “For the general public, the price is $9500, but for family and close friends the price is $10,000.”
My first night out in the “75” Dad took me to the “Boystown” gala and auction at Bill William’s restaurant, a favorite watering hole of the nouveau rich. Boystown was a Catholic organization which operated an orphanage in the Houston area. The routine was to ply the guests with copious amounts of alcohol, and then start the auction when the patrons were “over served.” The first bid-item of the evening was a Shetland pony, replete with a black and silver livery. A black steward dressed in a tuxedo with tails led the pony out into the make-shift arena. Before the auctioneer could introduce the item, C.F. shouted, “One thousand dollars!” The auctioneer echoed, “Sold!” and “that was all they was to that,” as we say in Texas. $1000.00 was a king’s ransom in 1949.
After the festivities, a lady approached us and asked where C. F. wanted the horse delivered? “Put him in the back of that Cadillac.” So off we drove, the twenty miles to our newly built mansion north of Houston, in a limo with a horse in it. As we turned off the highway, Dad started sounding the bugles. Lights began to blink on all over the compound. By the time we reached the front yard, Mom was standing there in her robe. She had little sis’age 2, drooped over her shoulder, trying unsuccessfully to stay awake. Servants were converging to investigate.
Dad emerged from the limo drunk, in case I failed to mention it. “I got our little sis’ the world-champion Shetland,” he announced as he flung open the rear door of the limo, exposing the horse’s rear end. The horse lifted his tail and relieved himself, both inside and outside the limo. The pony was stuck in the two facing rear seats. His right legs, front and back, had punched through the rear seat and his left legs had punched through the opposite facing rear seat. The pony was literally bogged to his hocks in the plush interior of the Cadillac 75! What remained intact of luxurious décor was destroyed when we attempted to extricate the pony. He went crazy, trying to get out of the car. We had to wait until he exhausted himself. In the process he tore up the car.
The pony’s pedigree said his name was “Lord Shetland of something-or-other” but we just called him “Shat” after that evening, because of what he did all over the Cadillac 75. He turned out to be too mean for children to ride. When a rider placed his left foot in the stirrup and started to swing up into the saddle, Shat would snap his head around and bite the rider in the buttocks. However, if an adult were watching over the attempt, Shat would not bite. He would simply go to the nearest tree and “rub-off” the rider. Also, he would kick anyone who stood behind him, but only if your back were turned. He would not kick anyone who was facing him from behind. So, those whom he kicked usually got it in the backside.
Mom would often say, “I’m telling you, Shat has an anal fixation. It all began with his ride in the limo.” Then she would add the postscript, “I hate that horse.” On the other hand Shat, was always close to C.F’s heart. When we moved onto the big ranch in 1950, Shat was turned loose for good. No one ever rode him again. He decided that he wanted to live on a neighbor’s ranch. He was amazing. He learned to walk across cattle guards also called, “Texas gates.” He could also undo wire gaps. We offered to pay the neighbor for his trouble, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Finally Dad bought the 1000 acres and Shat lived for a total of 20 years, undisturbed. Of course, C.F. “enlarged” his story. Whenever he showed off the place to visitors and they would come across Shat, Dad would exclaim, “That’s our world champion Shetland. I paid $10,000 for him at an auction, brought him home in a Cadillac 75. He didn’t even soil the upholstery.”
The car did not fare as well as the horse. It took three months to restore the interior. On the first Sunday following its return, my parents were stopped at a traffic light. A drunk in a pick-up made too wide a turn, and slammed into them head-on. Then he backed-up and proceeded to ram them again! As the drunk backed-up a second time, Dad jumped out of the car with his .45 automatic pistol and commenced firing into the engine of the pick-up. The use of a weapon sobered the drunk. He started to pull away when Mom started yelling, “Don’t shoot the truck C.F., shoot the drunk!” Dad took careful aim. The gun went “snap” and luckily, he was out of bullets. The Cadillac 75 was “cursed.” It was traded-in at a loss, for a mere Fleetwood.
2. Russian Bear
When C.F. was 65, he called me and asked if I would like to join him on a polar bear hunt. I was elated, not only because of the prospects of the hunt, but also because it was the first time that he had ever invited me on one of his exotic excursions. “Where are we going to hunt and when do we leave?”
“In the Soviet Union and we leave tomorrow.” Before I could speak, he started talking like a machine gun. “My Alaskan guide is going to fly us from the American side over to the Russki side. He flies under the radar, about 50’ off the deck. We shoot the bear, skin it, tie the hide to the struts, and zoom back across. They do it all the time. It’s as easy as that.”
“Dad” I said, “I have three small children, and have you ever heard of the cold war?”
“I knew you’d be chicken,” he said sarcastically. I answered, “cluck, cluck.” He rang off.
He arrived in Anchorage the next day, wearing a double knit sports coat and slacks. That was it. It was mid-January. He immediately donned the clothes they had made for him, and he boarded the private plane for Kotzebue, the jumping-off place for the hunt. The thermometer read 35 degrees below zero. The hunt involved 3 airplanes; a 6-seated Cessna with Dad and the pilot/guide, and two super-cubs. They would fly across the Bering Strait to the Siberian coast, then turn northward, hugging the Russian coast. When they found a bear that was really big, they would land the Cessna, while the two cubs “herded” the animal toward the shooter. They looked at 11 bears, before they spotted a huge male. They landed the Cessna on the Bering ice, and the two chase planes began their work. There was one hitch – the bear had been chased by airplanes before.
It took the two cubs, a full hour to herd him their way. Dad had to run to an ice ridge to get a good vantage point. The bear was going to cross the ridge about 300 yards from them. The guide cautioned Dad to wait until the bear crossed the ridge before taking the shot because there was three feet of standing water on the other side of the ridge. If he were to kill the bear in the water, the carcass would freeze before they could skin it.
Dad already had a bad case of emphysema. He could barely breathe in the cold. They saw the white giant approaching the ridge. C.F. raised his borrowed rifle to find that he couldn’t hold it still enough to make the shot. At that instant the bear made a fortuitous turn. He did not cross the ridge. He came straight toward them, but never left the shallow water. Dad finally fired when the bear was less than thirty yards away. He had four shells in the gun. He made a bad shot with the first one, hitting the bear too far back in the shoulder to do much harm. The second shot missed completely.
The third shot felled the giant in the water. When he went down he was so close to them that he splashed them with the cold arctic water. The guide immediately ran for the plane to fetch a block and tackle, to wench the animal out of the water. About that time the bear stirred. Dad hollered to the guide, “He’s gettin’ up and I have only one shell left.” To which the guide replied, “let him walk out of the water before you shoot your last bullet.” Then he added, “If you can’t finish him, I hope he eats you.” The bear staggered out of the water toward C.F. The last bullet put him down for good. He measured up to world record proportions, but was never registered for obvious reasons. The chief one being that he was shot in the Soviet Union, out of season, and God only knows what other laws were broken.
About 20 years ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood film producer. He wanted to rent the mounted bear. It was the central feature in Dad’s trophy room. It stood on its hind legs. They asked how much we would charge to rent it for a week. I told them that money couldn’t replace it, but my widowed mom could surely use $2500. The gentleman said, “would you settle for $4000, and we insure it for $250,000?” The movie was entitled The Hot Spot, starring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen. It was no threat, but the bear stole the show.
Earlier, when I said C.F. did whatever he wanted to when he wanted to, I had the polar bear adventure in mind. I asked him if he saw any signs of civilization on the Russian side. “Only a light-house,” he said. “And the light was working.”
3. Remembering Whence
C. F. had two addictions besides alcohol, women, and nicotine – fist fighting and dramatic giving. If there were a fight, he’d find a way to get in it. When I was about 9 we went to a football game in the brand new Rice stadium. After the game, we were walking to our car, when we came upon an altercation in progress. Two medium sized men had squared off with a really big guy, and the two were giving him a beating. Quick as a cat, Dad floored one of the twosome, with a short left to the chin. Then he said to the big guy, “I evened up the sides for you”, with that he walked away.
When I was about 42, I was in Houston on business and I called him. “I am glad you called,” he was bubbling with enthusiasm. “I have an extra ticket to the Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran fight tonight. It’s a ringside seat.” I couldn’t stay, and I’m glad I couldn’t. Dad took his bookkeeper instead, along with my brother and his son. During the prelims Dad, my brother, and his son went to the concession early to buy a beer and to hit the restrooms, before the main event. My nephew Mark, stopped by and paid for 4 beers on his way to the restroom. He and Dad came out of the men’s room together. Wayne, my brother was still in the men’s room.
Mark, who was about twenty at the time, went ahead of a long que to pick up the beers he’d already paid for. There was a young man standing there who thought that Mark was cutting in line and objected. Mark quickly told him he was picking up beers he’d already paid for. At that moment C.F. tapped the guy on the shoulder, the guy turned just in time to catch Dad’s best punch on the chin.
I must pause parenthetically, to tell you that C.F. had had part of his jaw removed, to combat cancer about a year earlier. Two days after surgery he was being driven around by an assistant to look at his projects, when they had a collision. Dad struck the wind screen and crushed what was left of his jaw. The doctors removed the entire jaw, maiming him terribly, and causing him to have to eat all of his food, after it had been through a blender.
Now, you know why young Mark said, “I couldn’t let the guy hit Paw Paw, he would have killed the old man, so I kayoed the guy. And besides, Paw Paw’s punch had the effect of a light peck of a chicken.” Mark was immediately grabbed from behind by two police officers, a male and a female. Only he didn’t know they were police. He used his elbow to catch the female officer squarely in the nose, giving everyone near, a shower of blood. Other police joined the fray and Mark was taken to a holding tank in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome. But not before being completely worked-over by night sticks. (Which our family thoroughly agrees with. The number one rule of the street is, never hit a police officer).
My brother Wayne emerged from the men’s room after all of the excitement abated. He quickly went and fetched his son from the holding tank. Then he returned to search for C.F. After an hour, they finally found him hiding near the same concession stand where the ruckus had begun. He was lying under a pile of empty cartons. He didn’t come out until he heard Wayne’s voice telling him that the coast was clear. Later I asked Wayne if he saw the fight. “No,” he chuckled, “neither one.” C.F. created that fight. He was the instigator of the whole sorry episode. He was always measuring our manhood and his, by ours.
4. My Corner
C. F. ascended to the best street corner in Houston, for selling the Houston Post. He won it the first time at 10 and kept it for two years, until he departed to live with Pap Ray. If you asked him what his best achievement in life was, he would say without hesitation, “winning and keeping my corner. I learned how to fight. I was inspired to own the kind of cars my customers drove. I caddied a while at River Oaks Country Club, got to meet some rich kids like Howard Hughes. I learned from him that you never grow bigger than your dreams. Years later, he invited me to join him as a partner in producing movies. I declined. I have no regrets. The Hollywood crowd was no place for me. The truth is I would have been sleeping with who knows how many women.”
Most of all young C.F. learned that he was poor, and he never forgot what it felt like. He was notorious for giving things away, things like ten thousand dollar watches! On the last Christmas of his life, Mom decided to try one more time to buy him a Rolex, President. The three of us children chipped-in to the enterprise. One week later we were at the big ranch in south Texas, for the annual Mann family gala. We would ring in the New Year at the renowned Modernos night club, in Piedras Negras, MX. Dad would always get on stage and play his harmonica with the band. Of course he would preface his appearance by giving the band-members handfuls of $100 bills. The annual ritual was a huge success. Kids and parents and grand kids of all ages danced ‘till they closed.
It was dawning a new day when we rounded-up the clan to leave. Dad, Mom, and my family were getting into our car when Dad saw this beautiful child staring at us. He had huge brown eyes that seemed speak to you when he smiled. He was half hidden behind his mother’s skirt. You could tell, from her clothing and make-up that she was a “lady of the evening.” Dad put on his best charm. He smiled and motioned for the lad of 4, to come to him. The mom seemed confused. She didn’t know who Dad wanted, “venga, muchachito,” (come little one) Dad coaxed him. His mom gave him leave. He waddled over to the car. Dad dangled the Rolex. The little Mexican swooped it up like a turkey on a June bug. Another Rolex done gone.
I bought him a $27 Timex. He wore it to the day he died. We talked about why he was compulsive in giving away such extravagant things. He said, “Two reasons: first I wanted to remind you that when you give something to me, it is mine and I can do with it whatever I please. Second I give the most extravagant thing I have at the moment because it helps me remember whence I came.”
5. Coulda Done Better, Jerry
No matter what I did. It was never enough to suit C.F. I was a good, but small, athlete. I had the opportunity to sign a baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, shortly after high school. I declined because I would spend the first year riding the team bus and being paid by the games I played. Besides, my first love was football. It was Dad’s first love as well. At 5’ 7’’ and 145 lbs., I thought I could play for anybody. I was recruited by three division 1- A schools, and a number of 2A schools. I went to Baylor on a scholarship, and am a card-carrying member of the lifetime letterman’s club. The truth is I tramped around to four different schools in four successive years and the same thing happened every year. I would work my way up to the starting lineup, and get hurt.
And C.F.’s pattern was fixed as well. He let me know in plain and subtle ways, that I was worth bragging about, only if I made headlines. One year in high school, I rushed for 222 yards in one game and threw for 212 yards, to boot. The last play of the game, I broke into the secondary and could have gone to my right for another 60 yards. Instead I went left and took the hit, for a 3-yard gain instead. I chose to do this as a gesture of sportsmanship. The opponent was thoroughly beaten, the score was 52-00.
When I walked into the house after the game, Dad said only one thing. “Do you know if you would have gone right on the last play of the game you would’ve broken the single-game rushing and scoring record for the state of Texas in class 2-A?” ‘You coulda’ done better, Jerry,’was all I heard from him. Before he died, I came to a sense of peace with C.F. To look at his background and the role models for parenting he had, it was a wonder that he was effective at all.
I disappointed him in many ways. For one thing, I never fought much. I refused to be measured by his standard of manhood. For another, I chose a profession that was opposite any he could have dreamed of in his worst nightmare. I have been asked the question with a sense of incredulity more times than I can count, “You are C.F.’s son?” My earliest memories are of awakening to his fights with Mom. I am not talking about shouting matches; I am talking about the sound of fists hitting flesh and Mom wearing sun glasses for a week at a time.
Once I remember the sound of a gunshot. And my dad wailing, “No! No! My God, no!” I mustered the courage to get out of my bed and run to the sound of gunshot. Mom was lying on the floor, with a twenty gauge shotgun under her. The room smelled of cordite. Dad was pawing at her. She was motionless for a few moments, then I saw her face. It had this grin on it which seemed to say, “gotcha.” She had faked being shot, to “test” him. There are lengthy periods in my childhood of which I have no memory at all. I have been tempted to unlock those repressed episodes, but to what good? My parents gave me as much love as they were capable and more, when their own upbringing is added to the mix. Besides, my Dad and I made our peace before he died. I forgave him of all of the bad things – real and imagined – he did which hurt me, and he forgave me. With that said, I want to share some true stories of the blessings he gave me.
6. Shamrock Giant
When Glen McCarthy opened Houston’s famous Shamrock Hotel (the event was immortalized in Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant. (McCarthy was the model for Ferber’s character, Jet Rink.), C.F was invited to the festivities. He had known McCarthy when they were both roughnecks in the oilfields of East Texas. McCarthy went on to marry an oil tycoon’s daughter. His wedding gift from his father-in-law was an oil rig and a blank check to explore. As C.F. put it, “He was given a ‘drillem’-til’-you-find ‘em license’. Hell anyone could be a tycoon with that deal. He was also a ‘puredee smart ass’.”
The centerpiece of the hotel’s opening was a huge banquet. C.F. bought the table closest to the head table. McCarthy arrived with an entourage of movie stars, politicos, and socialites. In fact, he had more guests than chairs at the head table. C.F. was promptly asked by two bodyguards to relinquish his table to the VIP’s for one that was less conspicuous. To everyone’s surprise, Dad graciously gave up his table. The two burly bodyguards proceeded to escort C.F. and his guests to a quickly-devised table near the kitchen. C.F. literally came apart. He felled both bodyguards with two punches. Then he walked back inside and invited McCarthy, whom he addressed as a “hooked-nosed s.o.b. and a coward,” to put ‘em up.
Dad’s older brother, “Uncle Frank,” was the family barrister and served 20 terms as a Houston City Councilman. He spent half the night getting C.F. out of jail. He swore that when they opened the door to the drunk tank, there stood C.F. holding court among his fellow inmates. He was almost shoe-deep in vomit and urine, and in his rumpled tuxedo he was telling a hairy tale of how he had whipped Glen McCarthy, five of his bodyguards, and two constables, before being subdued by a truck-full of local cops.
As the years passed, the story grew more and more hair on it. To tell the truth, I’m certain that Dad was invited to the opening of the grand event. I remember seeing the invitation which Mom framed and placed on her nightstand, along with an autographed photo of her and Dorothy Lamour. But I can’t vouch for the rest of the story. It certainly never happened, if I don’t tell it. And I have told it like it was told to me.
7. Easy or True?
In my day we could drive legally at age 14, which meant that most of us started driving at 11 or 12. I started with tractors and graduated to pick-ups on the ranch. C.F. bought a new Chevrolet pick-up in the fall of 1951. On my 14th birthday Dad gave me permission to drive it to town, 6 miles from home. On the way, the truck started sputtering. The heat gauge was pegged on “hot.” I pulled to the side, lifted the hood and removed the radiator cap. Then I fetched a bucket of water from a nearby ditch. When I tried to pour water into the radiator, it would immediately turn to steam and hiss at me. Fearing that I would be burned if I continued, I decided to just stay where I was until someone came along. It was a good thought. I wished I had stayed with it.
Instead, I started looking at the engine. I noticed that the radiator had a black hose leading from its top to the main body of the engine. I immediately thought, “If the water in the radiator flows to the main body of the engine, why not pour the water into the main body? There is a cap on the main body which is probably put there just for such an emergency as this.” You mechanics out there know already that what I’ve been calling “the main body of the engine,” was actually the crank case. And you already know what I did. I poured the crank case brim full of dirty ditch water!
It cooled the vehicle straight away. The engine fired right up. I made it to the city limits of my home town when the truck gave off an awful groan, followed by the worst knocking sound imaginable. The engine died and I coasted into Jack Weems’s Texaco, where we traded. I fast talked my way through what had happened, and then made an indecent proposal. “How about let’s drain the crank case dry? Then refill it with fresh oil. Then let’s fill the radiator with fresh water. Then I can say, ‘I was driving down the road and the engine just blew up?’”
The local auto dealer’s name was Mr. Wright. Everybody called him “Hooky,” because he had lost an arm, and wore a hook as a prosthesis. The replacement of the truck engine would be his responsibility. Every small town has its cruelties. Mr. Wright was also called “Hooky” by some, as a description of his trading practices. I told my story, and I stuck to it. It took Jack Weems about one afternoon to come to his senses. He called, and spilled the beans.
Monday afternoon, I looked up from my desk in history class and there stood C.F. He whispered to the teacher, who said, “Jerry, you’re dismissed.” We walked to the car in silence. As we turned into the ranch, I could stand the silence no more. I blurted out, “Why all of the theatrics? We had old Hooky Wright, right where we wanted him and Jack Weems let the cat outta the bag.” Dad drew back to hit me, I cringed and waited. The blow never fell. When I opened my eyes, he had tears on his cheeks. He wailed the question, “Easy or true? Easy or true? All of your days you will have to choose to do life the easy way or the true way.”
He turned the car around and drove back to town, straight to the auto dealer’s. He suggested that I might want to tell Mr. Wright the true story. I did. It took the entire town of 2000 people about 3 hours to know the story. I was thoroughly humiliated. For the first time in my life, I felt that my dad was an honorable human being. I was never prouder of him than on the day he forced me to choose between expediency and truth. In years to come he would break his own rules, lose his nerve, and refuse to take control of his instincts. Indeed truth does make cowards of us all. But at that moment in my fifteenth year, C.F. was the bravest man I ever knew.If you would like to purchase this book you may do so at www.gmm.org